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J Hist Dent. 2000 Nov;48(3):117-22.

Alfred P. Southwick, MDS, DDS: dental practitioner, educator and originator of electrical executions.

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  • 1Indiana University School of Dentistry, USA.


The search for a modern, humane method of criminal execution was triggered by a freak accident which occurred in Buffalo, New York in 1881. Dr. Alfred P. Southwick (a former steam-boat engineer, noted dentist and dental educator) happened to witness an intoxicated man die after he inadvertently touched a live generator terminal. Southwick's initial reaction was shock. Later, as he pondered this tragic event, he concluded that electrocution was, at least, a quick and seemingly painless way to depart from this earth. As his thoughts turned to common methods of capital punishment, Alfred concluded that death by electrocution could become a more humane alternative, as compared with the more grisly methods (e.g., hanging, beheading by guillotine, garroting, suffocation and flaying). Working through the governor of New York and the state legislature, Southwick originated and successfully promoted the passage of laws which mandated electrical executions in New York and in approximately 20 other states. During 1888-1889, Southwick served on the state's three-person Electrical Death Commission, a group who reported that electrical execution was superior to all other methods. On January 1, 1889, the world's first electrical execution law went into effect. On August 6, 1890, William Francis Kemmler, who had murdered his mistress, was the first person to die in the electric chair. However, this public event became an amateurish spectacle: the initial surge of current did not cause Kemmler's immediate death and a second jolt was needed. Those who witnessed this bungled execution were stunned. Graphic and detailed criticism from both the press and the general public ran high. However, Dr. Southwick vigorously continued to support and finally achieve his goal--to humanize capital punishment through the legal use of electrical execution.

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